In the 1970s we don’t have exotic things like avocados or alfalfa, so we fiddle about to make elaborate plates of over fussed food instead. Radishes become roses, tomatoes turn into lilies, cucumber is stripped and scissored and spring onions are converted into tassels. Nothing is served simply. Every item is mauled and prepared, plated and primped. And if we can stuff it we do – stuffed eggs, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed cucumber.
radish roses opening in ice
Radish roses that have been left in ice to open
Salads are not tossed or dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. Heinz Salad Cream goes with everything. My mother is horrified when I visit her in Kettering and toss French dressing into a bowl of freshly picked lettuce leaves from her garden.
‘You’ve ruined it with that muck. Keep out of the kitchen with your fancy ways! We eat salad cream with our salads, and we don’t need the French to show us how to cook.’
Lettuce from my mother’s garden is a choice of crunchy Cos or the sweet leaves of Little Gem. The greengrocers in East London, send us soft, floppy, round lettuce with limp, tasteless leaves. All fur coat and no knickers I call it. The lettuce looks OK but underneath it is naked nothingness. No wonder students hate it. When Iceberg lettuce arrives on our shores to accompany McDonald’s hamburger buns, our lettuce eating habits change forever.
The aim of my summer salad lesson is to arrange a plate of colourful cold vegetables and serve it with some stuffed eggs. I provide all the ingredients, so everything must be the same size and quality.
‘His tomato’s bigger than mine miss!’
Girls like Alice always protest about the size of my offerings. I wonder if Alice will get a job for a campaign organization, or work in politics.
‘I don’t want them radishes – they’ve got weevils in them!’
Ian likes the best quality produce and might grow up to be a greengrocer.
Hard boiled eggs are our protein food today. In truth we can’t afford anything else. I arrive early at school and boil 25 eggs in a huge saucepan of water for 5 minutes, then plunge them into a sink of cold water to keep the yolks yellow.
‘I want the brown egg miss – me nan says brown eggs are best.’
Janice’s nan has stern things to say about my cookery lessons.
‘You peel off the shell and don’t eat it, Janice, – the colour doesn’t matter.’
Janice glowers. Nan is old and wise and always right.
Janice’s gran says she must have hot food at lunchtime. When I suggest making salad for a picnic, I get a note from Gran explaining that it won’t be eaten as it is cold, so can Janice make a sponge cake for tea instead.
Tim, a single history teacher, has kindly bought Janice’s fussy egg salad for his tea so I watch her hygiene to keep the food safe to eat. Janice needs reminding that hands need washing before cooking, despite Gran telling her that a bit of dirt never hurt anyone.
I demonstrate how to crack and peel the egg shell – if the eggs are too fresh the shell sticks to the white, so I use older eggs for this lesson. There’s no date on the eggs or egg box, so age is guesswork or the float-in-water test. If they float they’re old.
The hard yolk is scooped out of each egg and mashed with salad cream – yum.
‘Put this mixture back in the egg with a spoon, or use this piping bag and twirl it back into the egg like this.’
I pipe an impressive, golden, eggy twirl and top with a sprinkling of paprika bought from a Hampstead deli.
Janice lets out a squeal.
‘It looks like yellow poo. Who’d eat that?’
Vegetable fiddling is next. Tomatoes are cut into lilies with pointed edges, and filled with salad cream and cottage cheese – a new ingredient on our shop shelves.
Radishes make roses and sliced spring onions become tassels. This fussed over veg is dunked into freezing water to open up and lose its nutrients.
Spring onion tassels which open in iced water.
They are eager to get on.
‘OK – eggs then salad – we’ll do the lettuce later.’
They rush off to choose the largest egg or tomato. There’s always whines and swapping.
‘Miss, we don’t eat salad.’
‘Miss, her cucumber’s bigger than mine.’
‘Can I have more tomato instead of this green stuff?’
At last they are sorted and busy. Eggs are twirled and salad chopped.
I’ve dumped droopy lettuces in a butler’s sink full of ice cold water. Examiners don’t like this , so I warn the class that the Vitamin C will seep into the water, and the limp lettuce will not be so nutritious. But we’ve got nothing else.
‘Come round and I’ll show you how to serve the salad.’
I remove the lettuce, radish and spring onions from cold water, and pat them dry with a tea towel. No fancy salad spinners here.
‘Place in colourful sections on a plate, sprinkle with bits of mustard and cress and serve with a jug of SALAD CREAM.’
What a fuss for something which today would be chopped, tossed and served in bowl!